Paris Brest Paris is the world’s oldest ultra endurance cycling event. Participants are given 90 hours to go the 1,200 km between Paris (really, Rambouillet) and Brest and then back again.
To start at the beginning, the very beginning, I set this ride as a goal three and a half years ago. I had just been diagnosed with SUNCT. It was difficult for me to do much of anything, including walking, without triggering pain.
Looking into the future it seemed it was possible I would lose my ability to continue working because of this. Paris Brest Paris was my way of saying “no” to that possibility.
My neurologist promised we’d find a treatment plan. So I picked a ridiculous goal that I knew would take years but that would also require me to fight. Working my way back up to being able to exercise took tons of baby steps, you can read the process I followed here.
This made for a very emotional trip as Marcy and I flew off to France. On one hand it felt like the culmination of three and a half years of work that we should be celebrating. On the other hand, we weren’t at all done yet. There was still, you know, the entire ride left to do and if I didn’t actually finish it I’d be letting down all the people that have been helping me along the way. A million times I thought about how I probably should have set a more sensible goal three years earlier.
In the months leading up to PBP I felt pretty good, physically. I rode up in the Blue Ridge mountains and set personal records on all three of the back mountain passes. I thought I was prepared for the elevation. I had ridden in freezing rain and searing heat. My bike fit was dialed in. I was a little nervous about my wheels but it was way too late to do anything about that now. Jeff, at Suwanee Creek Bikes, gave me some extra spokes and taught me how to disassemble and reassemble the bike for the trip.
I’m not nearly as fast as other riders so I figured I had about a 50% chance of finishing in the 90 hour time limit. And then another 20% chance of not finishing at all because of some mechanical, physical, or mental issue. Which leaves a 30% chance of finishing, but outside the time limit. Looking back though, I severely underestimated the difficulty of this ride.
The Saturday before we flew out I did one final ride on the bike. Everything felt good and I ran into my friend, Darcy, who had just come back from his own epic trip and was test driving a BWM motorcycle. I ended up getting soaked on the way back and had to let my bags air out.
With that final ride out of the way I wouldn’t be using the bike anymore so I disassambled it and put it in the bike box. I’d heard many stories of bikes arriving broken at the destination airport so I had bought a huge indestructible bike box.
And there he sat for a few days while I finished up work and waited to fly out. We had one final scare as Marcy didn’t have her passport! She had a trip in September and hadn’t got her passport back from the Cambodian embassy yet! But we got it back just in time and despite my fears Marcy, the bike, and I all arrived safe and sound in Paris on Thursday, 4 days before the start of the PBP. I reassembled the bike and went for a quick ride to make sure I had everything put back together right.
The next day, Friday, I went for a longer ride to stretch out my legs and to really test the bike. If anything is going to break it’s better it break now. I rode from our AirBnB in Versailles to the Eiffel Tower and Marcy took the train, meeting me there. As I entered Paris I stopped at a red light and a scooter pulled up next to me. The driver looked at me and the four full touring bags attached to my bike. Assuming I had just travelled a great distance to get to Paris he looked back at me and said “Bravo!”.
I stopped at a florist to get Marcy some flowers and then we had a nice picnic on the Champ de Mars.
Look how smug I am there in front of the Eiffel Tower. I had no idea what was in store for me!
From there I rode around Paris some more. Riding over some cobblestones my backup rear light fell off but I heard it hit the ground so I was able to stop and pick it up.
Leaving the Louvre a cab driver yelled out “Monsieur!” and when I looked he was holding out a water bottle for me. I managed to grab it from him from while riding on the cobblestones leaving the Louvre among the cabs and tour buses and tourists without crashing into him. I gave him a “Merci” in an awful accent and he called “Go PBP!”.
I ran into Russian and Italian PBP riders as well as these guys who said they were Korean, and then quickly made sure I understood “Not North Korea! South Korea!”.
I made one big mistake on the way back to the AirBnB. I had used a French site (https://www.veloscenic.com/) to map my route and it did a great job of picking low traffic roads with bike lanes until it dumped me on this forest trail:
I should have turned around at this point. Either found a different route, got on a train, called an Uber. Something. Instead I just went forward. There were a lot of rocks and I’m pretty sure I ended up puncturing the tire. I run tubeless tires so when I get a small hole in the tire some sealant (glue) comes out on its own and automatically patches the hole. I didn’t even notice.
We had dinner in Versailles that night at a kebab place. As we were eating a group of Indians comes up and, of course, we talk about PBP. One of them tells us that this will be his 10th ride of 1000km or longer this year.
“Ten? That’s one a month!” Marcy said.
“Well sometimes two a month, actually, because it’s only August.” he corrected.
Why in the world would anyone want to do that?!
The next day it was rainy. Like really rainy.
My time slot for bike inspection was 5pm. All I had to do until then was rest my legs, and get the rear light that fell off fixed. I wouldn’t pass bike inspection without a rear light and a backup rear light. I knew there was a bike shop nearby so Marcy and I walked down there. The rain picked up on the way and we ended up getting fairly wet. The shop was great though, and had the most fake French bike shop name ever: “Ze Bike Shop”. The owner of the shop didn’t speak a lot of English, but he understood the problem when I showed him the light. All it needed was a nut, the light itself was actually still fine. He reattached it and didn’t even charge me for the part or the labor. We bought a “Ze Bike Shop” water bottle as a memento and to support his shop.
That afternoon we headed over to Rambouillet for bike inspection. Marcy had already mastered the train system the day before when she went to Paris, so she showed me how to buy tickets. There were tons of other cyclists also headed to their inspections. A few of the ones coming back from inspections gave us warnings - the rain was delaying everything. They said to expect massive delays. They had stood in the rain for 2 hours to get their bikes inspected! They also emphasized it was cold rain and that I was underdressed. Great.
We got this warning several times from people getting off the train and it was repeated on the PBP Facebook groups.
I should point out at this point that this is a special year for PBP. This is a ride that’s been going on since 1891. It’s held every 4 years but this is the first year it’s ever sold out. Randonneuring, this style of cycling events, is becoming more popular. But because of that there are just a TON of people here. They would later announce the official number of people that made it to the start line - 6,374.
The train got to Rambouillet and the rain had let up so that Marcy and I had a nice walk through a very cute little town. Some of the shops had decorated for PBP.
And the Tour de France had come through just a couple weeks earlier so some of the shops still had decorations from that.
We got to a bar and Marcy pulled off saying she was going to get some wine. I hoped on the bike and continued on to find the bike inspection area.
10 minutes later I was done.
I guess it just timed out well for us. The rain had stopped, the lines were gone. There was only one person in front of me for bike inspection and no one in front of me to get my paperwork. There was a TON of mud though.
When I picked up my paperwork, timing chip, etc. they had me go to a room with a bunch of flags - each one having translators for your language. I went under the American flag and my translator said “baseball?” Ummmm… I really didn’t know how to answer that. Our waiter from the night before did ask if we liked the Braves when he found out we were from Atlanta so maybe this was small talk? “Baseball!!” His hand was out now, he wanted something. It turns out if you say “passport” in a really thick French accent from whatever region this guy was from, it sounds like baseball.
So, identity verified I got my registration packet. He goes through everything in the packet, showing me where to place everything on the bike. Then he shows me a bracelet and mimes putting it on my wrist. It has my number (K203) on it.
“I put this on my wrist?” I ask.
He points to his elbow and said “elbow” and looks at me to see if I’m following along.
Then the points to his arm - “arm”.
“Arm”. I said.
Then he points to his wrist and said “this?”.
“That’s wrist” I say.
“Okay, put it there.” he says.
So the American translator didn’t know the word for “wrist”. It was 5pm though - how had he been doing this all day?
It turns out the bracelet did indeed go on your wrist. It was meant to be used to check that your bike belonged to you, but outside of Rambouillet I never once had it checked. The only time it ever came up is when someone asked me “What are we supposed to do with these bracelets?” They must have had the same translator.
After the bike check we went back to the apartment and I dried off the bike, cleaned the chain, and re-oiled it.
Luckily I had thought to bring oil! The rear tire was a bit low, which was worrying. I saw a bit of glue on the seat stay, but not a lot. And I didn’t see any evidence of a puncture on the tire. My guess was that when I was riding down that dirt road the day before I hit a rock and the tire came off the wheel for a second, letting out some air and glue. It was on tight now, so no harm as long as it continued to hold air. I filled it back up and hoped for the best.
That night they fired fireworks above the Versailles palace. Mixed with the leftover clouds from the rain it looked like we were under attack!
We slept in the next morning. Marcy left for the airport, spending the time while I was riding with her friend Vicki in Lisbon. I woke up about 9, ate some breakfast, took an hour nap, and then went through the bike again just because I was so nervous. Here I am about to leave for the train.
The train platform was absolutely filled with cyclists! I stopped next to another cyclists from Japan who looked as terrified as I felt. I asked if it was his first PBP and he said it was. Then he said he was really nervous because his longest ride before now is 600km. I told him it was the same for me. He said that actually made him feel better - he thought everyone here had done it before.
There are two trains that go from Versailles to Rambouillet - a non stop express that takes 20 minutes and a local that takes 40. I timed it so that I got there right before the express but then a train official came over and said something in French. A bunch of people started picking up their bikes and walking away and I asked the guy next to me if he knew what had been said. Apparently we were being told that the express train didn’t allow bikes. I had looked it up on their website and there were no restrictions for bikes on trains on weekends. We had taken the express yesterday!
“But, no sense arguing with the French official, I guess” I said.
“Why not?!” the guy next to me replied. But despite him pleading our case the express train arrived and we weren’t allowed to get on.
We moved to the next platform and the local train arrived 10 minutes later. Luckily I wasn’t running late!
We got on the local train and there were bikes everywhere!
When you see another PBP rider one of the first things you do is look at their number plate. It tells you their number, which tells you their starting time. For example, my number is K203. All the Ks start at 6:30pm on Sunday. Ls start at 6:45, Ms and 7:00 and so on. The plate also has their country flag, although a lot of times you can tell that by their jersey.
There was a couple in front of me from Poland. They were pointing at my plate and speaking in Polish clearly saying “United States”. Eventually they looked up at me and asked if they could take a photo. Apparently I was the first American rider they had seen and the woman was trying to get photos of all the different countries. Last PBP, in 2015, 66 countries were represented so she had her work cut out for them.
One of the traditions at PBP is that the riders hand out souvenirs so I gave her one the Atlanta pins I was carrying.
She got very excited and took photos of my number plate, the pin after she put it on her camera bag, and her and I together in my American jersey. She told me that her boyfriend was one of the top riders in 2015 finishing 60th overall. He was hoping to do even better this year.
In Rambouillet it was crazy. Thousands of cyclists everywhere. I heard my name called out and turned to see Joe Todd, one of the Audax Atlanta riders! He was starting at 5:30, an hour before me. I told him we should take a photo together in case we never saw each other again. I was hoping to catch up to him so we could ride together, but lately he’s been faster than me. It’s a good thing we did take the photo because he ended up being a lot faster this ride!
They had a room where we could drop off a bag so I dropped off a change of clothes for after the ride. Then I found a shady spot where I could observe what I thought was the start line and eat some food. I laid down, knowing I wouldn’t get any sleep but at least I could rest. I was still so nervous I was debating just how bad the fallout would be if I just left.
I couldn’t quite figure out how the start worked but I saw someone holding a sign with a letter so I figured it meant I go over that way and find “K”. My registration packet said to get there at 5:45.
I had paid an extra 13€ for a meal before the ride. I had already eaten at the AirBnB, and I brought some food to eat while sitting near the start, and my handlebar bag was filled with food to eat during the first 200k. But I figured the more food the better. So I found the food tent and they handed me a tray.
By that point I was running out of time. I was still a bit worried about my rear tire though. It had gone a bit soft again so maybe I had a slow leak? Not ideal, but not the worst thing in the world. I figured I could fill it up now and then if it was indeed a slow leak I’d just have to keep filling it up every control. There were worse things that could go wrong for sure.
I stopped by the mechanic tent which, luckily, was right across the alley from the food tent. They had a pump you could borrow so I inflated my tire but then heard an awful noise and glue started spewing out a small pinprick of a hole. Disaster! Tubeless tires work best in motion - with the glue being forced against the outside wall of the tire - so I quickly spun the wheel several times and it quickly sealed. A mechanic immediately came over to help but he didn’t speak a word of English.
It was now 5:45, meaning I should be at the start. Another rider translated what the mechanic was trying to say. He asked if these were tubeless tires. I said they were. He asked if I had filled them with glue. I said I had. He said then just leave it. Probably they’ll be fine.
“Wait, did he use the word ‘probably’”? I asked.
“Well”, my volunteer translator said, “you’ll find out pretty quickly, won’t you?”
I thanked the two of them, put a couple Euro in the donation bin (the mechanics don’t work for PBP, they’re just people from local bike shops who volunteer to hang out and help) and then headed down the hill back to the start area. I found the K staging area - a big line of 150 people all waiting until 6:30.
I was standing next to an Irishman. He turned and said something to me. I literally did not understand a single word of it. It was like something out of a comedy movie. “Sorry…?” I said. He tried again and may or may not have said the same thing he said before. “Um…” I said. He just shrugged and faced forward again. I got the feeling this happened to him a lot.
Eventually we were off. Not with an “un! deux! trois!” and a gun shot, but with a queue to four of five ladies stamping our control cards saying that we had left Rambouillet. We crossed a mat that scanned our timing chips and then we were on quiet roads in the Rambouillet forest.
I had heard that the French treat Paris Brest Paris as a big party and I was not disappointed. After about half an hour we got to the first town. They had a giant banner out welcoming us. It looked like everyone in town was outside lining the streets and cheering. They had decorations set up, signs, and bicycles.
I found out later we went through 178 towns. Some had big decorations setup up.
Some just had a few people outside clapping and yelling “Alle!” (go!). Some looked deserted, just stone buildings and walls, but were beautiful to ride through.
The children would hold out their hands for a High-5 (I’ve never given more High-5s in my life) and families would setup tables offering water, coffee, and pastries. Some of the towns had signs up with names of their local residents that were riding in PBP - “Alle Papa” or “Go Sissy!”
France has hills a lot like Atlanta. Not especially hilly - nothing too long or steep - just lots and lots of small and medium hills. At the top of the larger ones people would park their cars and cheer us on. At the first one, just an hour into the ride, there were two or three families cheering but also an ambulance attending to a rider.
Shortly after that we reached the first roadside food stall. These stay open all night just for PBP. My plan was to ride the first 200k non-stop. I had brought enough food so that I could do that but as I rounded the corner… oh man, the smell of this food was incredible. I stopped and I think they were serving sausage on fresh bread.
After a couple hours the sun began to set.
So far nothing had gone horribly wrong. My tire had that slow leak but my bike had survived the flight, I survived the start without doing anything foolish, and my legs were feeling good. Finally my anxiety was settling down and I was really enjoying the ride.
It was windy so I knew it’d take a little longer to reach Brest than expected. But I’d ridden in the wind a lot back home so it wasn’t anything I wasn’t used to. And the wind always dies down when the sun sets.
Before the first control is Mortagne-au-Perche which is an optional stop. Here I did stick to my plan and didn’t stop. At some point in the night I stopped to rest against a stone wall for a couple minutes to catch my breath. There were still TONS of riders everywhere. Joe Todd had given me a tip to start a stopwatch when you get off your bike. I watched the riders go by.
After a few minutes another rider sat down next to me. I warned him the wall was very comfortable. He was from the states, but I forget where. We talked for a bit but then I looked and my stopwatch said 10 minutes so I jumped back on the bike and continued on.
As soon as the sun set, riders started pulling off to the side of the road and falling asleep. We had only been riding for a few hours, but remember some of these riders were dealing with severe jet lag and only landed the day before.
They looked like big life sized baked potatoes.
In addition to the strong headwind, the cold night temperatures were unexpected. The forecast had called for a low of 50°, which is what I brought clothing for. That first night it didn’t get too much lower than that, 45° I think. But I wasn’t dressed for it, and I was cold.
I got to Vilaines, the first control, at 5:45 Monday morning. My plan was to get in and out of the controls as quickly as possible so that’s what I did. The plan worked as right after the control there was a warm place to eat.
At this point I was making pretty good time. I can typically do a 200k in 10 hours. Villaines is at km 217 so I was about on track. The closing time for Villaines was 9am, so I was 3 hours ahead of that.
It was a huge difference to be riding at night in France. In the states I hate riding at night. Typically, if I’m doing a 600k I’m pretty far south simply because that’s the only place where there are enough roads to go that far. But if you go far enough south you end up sharing the roads with a lot of raised pickups and rednecks. I end up spending the entire night wondering if every car I see in my rear view mirror is going to hit me - either intentionally or because they’re drunk. It’s nerve racking and night riding is something I normally dread.
Riding in night here was completely different. For one thing, I was riding with 6000 other cyclists. But, also, the cars never had any problem with us. Half of them rolled down their windows and cheered us on. But even the cars that didn’t get into the PBP spirit knew how to drive around cyclists. They didn’t get impatient waiting to pass, and they didn’t “buzz” you when they did pass. It was such a nice change - I’m forever ruined from enjoying American roads.
Still, 45 minutes later the sun came up and it was a relief. Not only is it warmer, it’s always a nice mental boost to have that light.
I had been craving hot chocolate all night but no one sold it. However, I came across a town, Le Ribay, that had setup a big tent. I stopped to buy some fries and a hot chocolate which was just perfect for that early morning chill. I talked to a woman who lived there and I asked if they do this every PBP. She said, no, this was their first time. They decided to do it and then everyone in the town signed up to cover shifts so that the tent would have 24/7 coverage.
About 10am I was getting sleepy. I went through a town called Garron where I stopped for a burger. There were so many cyclists that they were bringing in bags and bags of potatoes, for the french fries.
Afterwards I found an alcove in front of a closed shop and laid down to rest. I set a timer on my phone for 30 minutes and was out in minutes.
I felt good and continued on.
The roads were great and the people continued to be so kind. I don’t know if this was a permanent sign or if they just put this up for the event but I thought it was cool.
A couple hours later, at 12:45, I reached the second control Fougeres at km 306.
And then at 4:15 Tinteniac at km 360.
Tinteniac was a bit crazier then the previous controls. They had an emcee setup saying something in French and there were a lot of people around, not just the PBP riders. It had a really exciting atmosphere. I liked it because it had a table outside where you could walk up and buy a sandwhich and soda very quickly without having to go in and wait in any line.
Tinteniac’s cut off for K riders was 6:45 so my 3 hour buffer had shrunk, but just slightly. I was feeling pretty good. The weather was wonderful, I was riding with more cyclists than I had every seen in my life, and everyone was so happy! We continued to get so much support from everyone. Here, they spray painted the streets.
The hills started catching up to me a bit and my knee started hurting. I knew this meant I was using too big of a gear and too low of a cadence. To help me fix this I decided to add cadence as a field on the elevation screen of my Wahoo. When I opened the app on my iPhone though I was greeted with this screen.
I only bring this up because Wahoo pisses me off later on in the ride too. It rebooted, twice! I normally love Wahoo, a great Atlanta based company. But now I don’t have a Strava workout of PBP. :(
Anyway - the knee. I just tried to remember to spin more - mash less. It worked and my knee pain went away quickly.
Just before sunset I came across another food stand and bought two crepes. One with Nutella and one with, no exaggeration, the best sausage I have ever had in my life. I was going to ask how they made it but, you know, language barrier and all.
We got a little bit of rain at this point. Not a ton, just enough to make you stop and put on a rain jacket. Otherwise you end up wet and when the sun sets you end up super cold. It was interesting to see at what point people changed clothes. Depending on what climate they came from they’d put on the night layers at different times. Some people would put on arm and leg warmers and a jacket an hour before sunrise - apparently coming from somewhere much warmer. On the opposite side of the spectrum I passed a guy in the middle of the night wearing absolutely no cold weather gear at all. Wherever he came from 40 degree temperatures didn’t bother him at all so he felt shorts were fine.
A man I was riding next to at this point said “oh, you’re a K. I’m a J. We’re really cutting it close, huh?” I asked what he meant and he said “We have to be in Carhaix at 6am.” I wasn’t sure what he meant. We seemed to be doing alright. But maybe my math was off? Oh crap, is my math off?! It definitely freaked me out a bit and I picked up the pace.
At 10:45pm I got to Loudeac at km 445. The cut off time was just before 1 am so I’m still doing alright, time-wise. I’m not sure why that guy thought we were in trouble.
Loudeac, is a giant control. The reason being it’s location. On the way to Brest it’s the location most people choose to sleep. And, on the way back it’s often a sleep stop or a least a big meal stop. I’d watched a ton of PBP videos and read a ton of stories beforehand and all said to spend as little time as possible at Loudeac so that was my plan. I didn’t even attempt to go in the cafeteria or get in the line for the bathroom.
However, my tire had gotten worse. There was a big hill getting up to Loudeac and it’s pavement wasn’t great. My tire was low enough I could feel each bump of the road. I ended up standing up the entire hill so that I didn’t put pressure on the rear wheel. On the plus side, that made me quicker up the hill. But I had to deal with it now or it’d be a problem and I’d get stranded.
I asked where the mechanic was but the volunteer I asked didn’t understand. (The French word for ‘mechanic’ is ‘mécanicien’ so…) Eventually I found an English speaking volunteer and they pointed the way. One of the mechanics spoke English but he had never dealt with tubeless tires so he had to ask the French speaking mechanic what to do. The advice was to just throw a tube in it. Fair enough, that works for me. They said it’ll take about 15 minutes though because they had a few bikes ahead of me. I found a quiet-ish place to lay down, set a timer for 15 minutes, and tried to sleep. After a few minutes it was obvious I wasn’t going to fall asleep. I was wasting a TON of time here and I just wanted to get going. It was making me anxious. So I just posted where I was on Facebook and did some people watching.
When the timer went off I went back to the mechanic. My tire was ready, 6€.
I knew that just past Loudeac was a town called Saint-Martin-des-Près. Every PBP they throw a huge BBQ. I had planned on eating here to save time since Loudeac is so crazy. So I stopped to eat. I had heard the soup was good, so I ordered that. In retrospect, I probably should have eaten while my bike was being worked on. I was so set on my plan that I forgot to adjust when things changed.
By this time, 1:30 am - it was very cold. There was a man sleeping in the tent where I was eating and I could see he was shivering. I considered buying a second bowl of soup and taking it to him but if he actually was asleep that would be very rude to wake him up. At the other end of the tent another man apparently was even colder and was being taken away by paramedics.
I think between Loudeac and Saint-Martin-des-Près I wasted a LOT of time. But it was really good soup.
Damon Peacock, who creates the Paris Brest Paris documentary videos, did some filming at Saint-Martin-des-Près this year and captures the atmosphere really well.
I didn’t realize at the time how much time I had wasted trying to find my way around Loudeac, getting my tire fixed, and trying to get warmed up by the soup. Now I was running out of time. They had a “secret control” - a control not previously listed - at km 488. That way if anyone was cheating and going off course they wouldn’t have a stamp from that control. Luckily it was pretty quick to get in and out but it meant even more time before I reached Carhaix.
I finally got to Carhaix (km 521) at 5am, just 1 hour before the cut off. This wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great either. It meant no time for sleep. I had really hoped to get to Brest with a nice big 5 or 10 hour time buffer and I was so far off from that it was crazy. But, at the same time I was less than 100k from Brest! The sun was about to come up and I was very excited.
A big portion of the climbing on PBP is into, and out of, Brest. This had me a bit worried. A big hill can easily take an hour. If this one did then that would put me past the time cut off. I’ve heard different things about what happens at that point. Some people said the volunteers didn’t care and they just stamped your card. Some people said they only cared if it was over 15 minutes. I stopped and checked the PBP website where they had the rule book. It said you are allowed to be late once, but you have to make up the time within the next two controls. Okay, that made me feel better. Plus, I’ve been training in the North Georgia mountains and no way the hill to Brest is worse than that.
The hill was long, but it wasn’t bad. And I saw this great view of a fog covered valley.
Shortly after that view this French kid, maybe 10 years old, starts riding with us. He’s in sweat pants and Puma’s and riding on an old mountain bike. But he’s kicking our asses. We’re all on very expensive bikes and, supposedly, highly trained ultra endurance athletes, and this kid is passing all of us on this long hill just because he can. He’s giggling and having a lot of fun. One of the other PBP riders pulls in behind him and started a pace line for a little bit. Eventually he pulls off and into his house where his dad is waiting laughing like crazy. I pulled off too and gave him one of my Atlanta pins for his effort.
For a little while there is some traffic and due to the amount of cars and the massive amount of cyclists we’re faster than the cars. It feels like those stages of the Tour where the riders are weaving between the Mavic support cars. You know… the slow cyclists who got dropped by the peloton.
Eventually we see a radio tower which signals the top of the hill.
And then it’s a long downhill into Brest. Which is always fun, but of course it comes with the knowledge that we’ll be climbing back up this in just a few hours.
And then, 11am, I reach the bridge. It’s not actually the halfway point, that’s the Brest control, but spiritually it feels like it. I’ve had a photo of this bridge in my office for years. I’ve literally dreamed of this bridge. It’s an incredibly emotional moment.
And George Swain was there too! George is from New York but last year came down to Georgia and rode the Gainseville 200k.
There are old French men hanging out on the bridge. Everybody stops here. I didn’t see a single PBP rider not stop. So the French men walk up and offer to take a photo of you with your camera. Then they shake your hand and say “Bravo!” Honestly, it sounds like a fun way to spend a Tuesday.
I’d pedalled so far west now - 600km - that the sun set 30 minutes later. How crazy is that?
I texted Marcy and her and Vicki send me a ton of encouragement. Just a bit later I’m in Brest - 11:35 at km 610.
Brest is another big control but cut off is 12:35 so I’m down to exactly one hour. I’m hoping to get in and out. I run into George again and mention to him that I don’t want to eat here, but that I also am not confident that I’ll find food on the way out. He introduces me to his friend Nigel who tells me there is pizza along the route.
This may sound odd, but Brest had the best restrooms. Some of the restrooms at the controls were disgusting with lines that lasted 15 to 20 minutes. Brest had super clean restrooms. I changed my socks and bibs (cycling shorts). The bibs felt incredible, the right sock oddly enough felt too big for a few hours which was crazy annoying.
I headed out craving pizza. I passed a hamburger joint packed with cyclists - nope, I’m holding out for pizza. I find the pizza place and it is crazy busy. The line is insane but now I’m committed. Once again I think I wasted too much time here. Worse - I was craving, like, Papa Johns or Pizza Hut. This is like French flat bread with veggies and cheese on it. Not really “pizza”. It was fun trying to order though - the cashier didn’t speak any English so it came down to pointing and charades. We were both laughing by the end of it.
At Brest I had posted this update on Facebook:
That bit about ‘crashing’ comes into play in a second. I had to climb back up that radio tower hill. At the top of the hill a few families had setup tables giving away food and water. I stopped at one and refilled my bottles and had a cookie. I gave their three girls Atlanta pins and the father showed me all the different pins that the youngest had gotten so far.
Going back down the other side of the hill though - it was a long gentle descent in the warm sun. I don’t think I fell asleep, I remember the crash happening. But I lost focus and crashed when my handlebars wobbled. My head ended up hitting the road hard enough to crack my helmet in several places and I saw stars. I dragged across the road for a bit causing quite a bit of road rash on my left arm and leg and right hand. My first thought was ‘ow’, my second was ‘they’re going to pull me from the ride if I have a concussion’. But I’m pretty sure you have to lose consciousness to get a concussion.
The car behind me stopped and a French woman got out. She asked if I wanted an ambulance and I said “no, no ambulance!” Another PBP rider came over and he didn’t speak great English, but he motioned for me to spin my wheel. Of course, the bike! I spun the back wheel and it was fine. The front wheel though didn’t spin - it must have been out of true. He motioned for me to open the brake. I did that and it spun again. He said “mechanic in Carhaix” meaning, get it fixed right at the next control. The only other damage seemed to be my brake lever was pushed to the side but that was just an ergonomic issue for now.
I thanked them both and got back on the bike before anyone could tell me I was unfit to continue riding.
I made it to Carhaix (km 693) at 6pm - just 30 minutes before the cut off! I saw the mechanic who adjusted my brake lever and said my wheel was fine, it just needed to be re-seated. So, amazingly, the bike was fine. I asked how much for the repairs but he didn’t want any money. Short on time I was back on the road.
About 11pm I suddenly realized I had no idea how I got on the road I was on. The pavement had a red tint and the road was lined with these giant ferns on both sides, which wasn’t like the previous roads at all. Last I remembered I had been riding through one of the small towns with other cyclists and now I couldn’t see a single cyclists even thought the road went on straight for a while in front and behind me. I stopped and, honestly, I was freaking out a bit. With 6,000 other riders I couldn’t really remember I time I couldn’t see any other riders but I looked at my GPS and it said I was on the right path.
Not remembering taking the last turn combined with the paranoia made me think I must just be incredibly tired. Which, made sense - I’d been riding since 6:30pm Sunday and it was now 11pm Tuesday and I’d only slept 30 minutes. I continued on but was still very freaked out by this awful road. I felt a lot better when I finally saw a group of 5 Italians zoom past me in a tight pace line. I was in no shape to match their speed but it felt good just to see their taillights. They turned and we began a decent down a twisty road with pure white pavement. Suddenly the road was a cloud and the Italians were on motorcycles and surely I could catch up to them if I just stopped using my brake on this downhill.
Okay, that thought woke me up before I actually fell asleep. I needed to find a place to lie down NOW! At the bottom of the hill were two buildings, I have no idea what they were but GPS says the town was Le Quillo. On the right a group of Japanese cyclists were either working on their bikes or preparing to sleep. I took the left building and lied down on the sidewalk. It was cold but I took out my emergency bivy and once inside it was quite warm. I fell asleep instantly and when the alarm went off 30 minutes later I had to force myself to get up. It was crazy cold outside the bivy but once I got moving I started warming up and I felt a million times better then when I had been hallucinating about evil ferns.
I made it to Loudeac (km 783) at 1:10 Wednesday morning, just 10 minutes before the cut off!
Once again the sun came up. Marcy was texting encouraging messages like this:
I caught up to Betty Jean, from Audax Atlanta, and was able to ride with her for a little bit. She’s a LOT faster than me but even though she had started before me she had slept more so we overlapped for a while.
I was getting more sensitive to the heat. At the time I thought I was sunburnt, but afterwards it turned out I wasn’t at all. It was just sensitivity to temperature changes from physical exhaustion. Although the weather should have been perfect, it was 72°, I felt extremely hot when in the direct sun.
In the shade though I felt great. And it was the last full day so even though I was tight on time my spirits were high. I was anxious - I was so close to the time cut offs, but I will having a lot of fun.
I got to Tinteniac (km 869) shortly after sunrise at 7:37. I had made up a bit of time since Loudeac - I was now 30 minutes ahead of the cut off.
It might have been Tinteniac that I stopped and actually ate in the cafeteria. I tried to eat outside of the controls as much as possible since the lines inside the controls were so long, but I did eat inside twice. The food wasn’t bad but it had a certain… smell. I don’t think it was bad, I think it just ended up getting to me after smelling it so many times. They did reliably have sandwiches (although I got sick of those), soda, and fruit. They offered giant glass soup bowls filed with coffee that were very popular.
I stopped in a town called Le Loroux and leaned against the stone wall of the buildings. As I watched the riders go by an old French lady came out, pointed at my water bottle, and said something in French - obviously asking if I wanted water. I handed her my water bottle and she disappeared back into the stone buildings. She was gone for a while and then came back out with my water bottle (filled with wonderful, COLD, water) and also a coffee. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I didn’t drink coffee so I took it. In fact, I’ve never had a single cup of coffee. It may have been Cappuccino? The top was foam. It wasn’t bad, maybe I’ll start drinking coffee.
She didn’t speak English but we were able to have a bit of a conversation with bits of words and gestures. She asked if I was headed to Brest or Paris. She told me she was a volunteer nurse at one of the PBP control stops (this one took forever to figure out!) And she told me that once the Tour de France came through their tiny town but she hated it because of all the traffic it brought.
I got to Fougeres (km 923) at 12:11 Wednesday. Exactly at the cut off! Not good.
I continued on and got to a famous stop on PBP, La Tannière. It’s said that crepes were invented here. Every PBP a family puts up a tent and the “crepe guy” makes crepes for all the riders. They’re given away for free as long as you promise to send a post card from your home town when you get back home. There are little slips of paper you can take with the address of where to send the post card.
I gave a pin to the son of the crepe guy when he showed me where the bathroom was. (It was inside their house, which was very cool. I got to see past the stone wall of the town. It looks just like a normal house on the inside.) When I gave him the pin he ran to his sisters and chanted something in French that obviously translated to “ha, ha, ha, I got a pin and youuu didddn’t”.
Brian Burke was also at the crepe stand. Brian is MUCH faster than I am and started an hour earlier. However, he was purposefully trying to get a slow time (an Adrian Hand’s time) so that he could take his time and enjoy the ride.
I got to Villaines (km 1012) at 7:22pm - 6 minutes past the cut off.
I was really going back and forth between thinking I could finish this ride and thinking there was no way I could finish in time. But just a bit more than 200k to go! That typically takes me 10 hours, it’ll be longer considering I’ve got 1000k in my legs and the elevation profile shows 3 big hills coming up. The final cut off was just after noon Thursday so it was going to be close, but if those hills were tough then I could easily go over the time limit.
Marcy continued to send encouraging texts.
And I continued to send her status updates.
Villaines was a crazy control. We were riding through quiet roads and then suddenly people everywhere. The most people I had seen so far - lining the roads 3 deep cheering us into the city with barricades keeping them off the road. Then when we got to the control there wasn’t just one bike parking area but multiple with volunteers pointing you to which one they wanted you to go to. There was an emcee saying, something, in French and signs saying what areas were for riders only and which areas fans were allowed to go to.
I wasn’t expecting it but it was a nice morale boost. I bought a bunch of food knowing I’d need it through the night. I didn’t have time to sit in the cafeteria so I bought some of those damn sandwiches and forced myself to eat half of one and then saved the other half for later. I got all turned around and it took me 5 minutes just to find the parking lot where my bike was.
While I was eating the half sandwich I sat with a British gentleman and had a great conversation. I had to force myself to get up and not just sit and chat for an hour.
Not great timing when I was already behind time, but still a lot of fun.
Wednesday night was the coldest night of the entire ride. My GPS recorded 37. But I knew I just had to get through it and then no more night riding.
My neck started getting sore so I stopped and took the light off my helmet. My primary light was attached to the front of my bike so the helmet light was used as a backup when I needed a ton of light and as a light to see by when I’m trying to get something out of a bag. It was annoying not having a light to see inside my bags but my helmet was starting to feel really heavy - despite it literally being the lightest helmet certified by Snell.
At 11:11 - oddly enough exactly 24 hours since I last slept - I realized I was getting way too tired. We were riding in a really remote area and I pulled into a rest stop. There was a truck pulled off to the side, I’m assuming he was also sleeping and two picnic tables - one with a cyclist already sleeping on top of it. I took the other picnic table and climbed on top. It was freezing and, as we were on top of a big hill, a bit windy. I pulled out my emergency bivy again and climbed inside. Looking up I could see the Milky Way. I can’t remember the last time I was anywhere dark enough to see the Milky Way. I was tempted to just lay here and stare at it for a while but I turned on my side and was instantly asleep. 30 minutes later my alarm went off and I was back on the road.
All day it had been warm and I wanted downhills to cool down. Now it was freezing but it seemed like all there was was downhills to make it colder!
Eventually I made it to Mortagne (km 1097) at 3:39am. This was well past the 2:18 cut off. From how I understood the rules, this is allowed but it certainly doesn’t seem likely that I’ll finish the ride in time.
My bike hadn’t been shifting great - not allowing me to go to my easiest gear without the derailleur hitting the spokes. Knowing those three hills were coming up I knew I’d need that gear. I stopped by the mechanic and asked him to take a look. He didn’t speak any English and didn’t understand what I was saying. He had put the bike up on his rack so I just spun the pedals and shifted the bike showing him how it hit the spokes. “Ah ha!” he said. He pointed out the real problem, one of the spokes was broken. Ugh. I had a spare spoke, but it’d take a while to fix it and I didn’t really have the time to spare. He simply took the broken spoke and wound it around one of the good spokes. Then he adjusted the nearby spokes so that the wheel was true, and then adjusted the derailleur so that it shifted into all the gears.
“Voilà” he said.
“Um… are you sure?”
He seemed pretty confident and it’s not like I had much of a choice so I set off with my makeshift fix.
Marcy was flying back from Lisbon to meet me at the finish. I had originally told her to expect me at 9am and I texted her saying I’d be lucky to make it by the cut off. I asked the people stamping my card what the final cut off was. My math said Thursday at 12:40. They said they didn’t know as it was different for each group. So hopefully my math was right! I told Marcy I was shooting for 12:39 but I really didn’t know if I’d make it or not.
My neck was getting much worse. It was getting difficult to hold my head up. I kept having to stop and massage my neck muscles otherwise I couldn’t see forward.
At this point I hit the three hills that were on the elevation profile. They weren’t as bad as I had feared. I was worried I could lose hours, but I stayed right about the same.
I got to Dreux (km 1174) at 9:03. Once again past the cut off but now I just had 45 km to go!
However, my neck muscles had now completely given up. I couldn’t lift my head up at all. If I massaged my neck the muscles would work for a few minutes but stopping every few minutes wasn’t feasible. I tried massaging as I rode but that didn’t work well. I removed my helmet as it was far too heavy at this point.
I had 4 hours to go 45 km. On a normal day this is a TON of time. But today it actually seemed like I might not make it. I thought about walking, but, no, 45km is too far.
So I just started pedalling… while looking down. Luckily the route from Dreux to Rambouillet goes through the Rambouillet forest. It’s flat and mainly on a cyclepath. No cars, no intersections, no buildings, and every cyclist was going in the same direction. Plus, it was early in the morning and I was headed East so when I approach another cyclist I could see their shadow long before I got close to hitting them.
At first I took it slow, since I couldn’t see. But I did the math and riding at 8 or 9 km/h wouldn’t work. 4 hours sounds like a long time but at this speed I would make it there past 1pm. So I speed up as much as I could on the clear flat cyclepaths knowing that I’d have to crawl when the route went through cities again.
There were riders sleeping everywhere. We passed one rider who fell asleep on his bike landing half in and half out of the street. The car behind him stopped, covering him with a blanket. When we passed there was an ambulance caring for him but we learned later he was okay.
It seemed to take forever. I made it past the part with the cyclepaths into a more rural area. At first it climbed a bit and then there was a nice descent for a few kilometers. This was nice as I could just sit on my top tube and look straight ahead, giving my neck a rest for a while. It was a scenic area, with horse ranches on either side of the road. I probably looked pretty silly, sitting on top of my top tube instead of the seat, but, whatever, it was working. On the side of the road was a French farmer (I’m assuming he was a farmer) clapping and yelling “Bravo!”. As I passed he called out “only 15 kilometers to go!”
I kept going. I tried to do the math about how much time I had left and how long it would take but I was too tired. It seemed like I would make it, it was just going to take a while. Plus, not only did my neck no longer support my head it REALLY hurt now. I looked down and saw only 9km to go!
I fell asleep for just a second and dreamed I was 9km from the finish of PBP. I woke up and looked at my GPS and saw… 9km to go. This really freaked me out. Last I remembered I was riding next to rural horse ranches riding alone (although with riders visible ahead and behind me) and now I was in a busier town surrounded by cyclists. It took me a few minutes to figure out if I was dreaming or awake, it was a very surreal feeling. Did I dream the entirety of PBP? I actually considered stopping and calling Marcy to confirm what was going on. But… I figured this was real and I needed to finish PBP so I should keep pedaling. Or, this was a dream but, man, what kinda messed up dream where I’m forever stuck at 9km from the finish but can’t even lift my head? But I might as well see where the dream goes.
Eventually we got to Rambouillet! My neck was killing me so I pulled off to the side of the road. At this point I was probably 3km from the finish. However, the finish is uphill on cobblestones. And it was crazy crowded with cyclists. No way could I finish without looking up, it wouldn’t be safe for the other cyclists and I’d feel awful if I crashed into someone else and ruined their race.
I had about an hour to finish. Could I walk 3km in an hour? Uphill. On cobblestones. In bicycle cleats? I had to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
At the very end there were no route signs. The rumor is people stole them as souvenirs. Another rider stopped next to me and asked if we were on the right path. Since I couldn’t look up, all I could see was my GPS on the handlebars. I told him, yes, we were on the right path. Just go straight ahead and then left at the next dead end. He thanked me but then I said “WAIT!” and told him what was going on. Luckily he spoke English - he was an American rider from DC. He told me no problem - just stare at his back wheel and he’ll lead me in.
I followed him and he made a path all the way to the finish. Right before the top of the hill I thanked him and pulled off. I stopped and spent a few minutes massaging my neck so that I could safely cross the finish line - just 50 meters away. When I could lift my head again I set back off and immediately heard Marcy cheering! I barely made it to the top of the hill when I felt my neck giving out. We passed under a big inflatable arch with tons of people cheering. As awful as I felt physically, it was incredible to know I had actually finished the ride.
Someone was standing on the corner and said the actual finish was around the corner and we had to cross the timing mat. My neck had officially given out so I didn’t see him but this is the same area where we did registration so luckily I was familiar with the area and we were all riding really slow. We did a lap of the interior of the Rambouillet buildings, crossed the timing mat, and then we were done!
Damon Peacock happened to be filming right as I finished. You can see me cross at 8 seconds into this video (in the red white and blue American jersey), head down and helmet dangling from the handlebars.
Once past the timing mat Marcy was there and she embraced me in a giant hug - both celebrating our win and holding me up physically.
I had made it to Rambouillet (km 1219) at 11:44 Thursday, 89 hours and 4 minutes since I had left on Sunday.
The official numbers were announced later. 6,374 riders started. 27% (1,702) abandoned or did not finish in time. Many thought the heavy winds on the way to Brest were a reason for the high failure rate. Although I’ve heard other people say that 27% is a normal failure rate for PBP.
That same surreal feeling from 9km to go was still there. Was it really possible that I had just ridden 1200km? That didn’t seem likely.
The atmosphere in Rambouillet was incredible. Everyone was in great spirits. I was hoping to find Joe Todd - I knew from following his check in times that he finished several hours ago but I also knew he liked to hang around and cheer on other people as they finished. I wasn’t able to see him though. We did run into someone we knew - Brian or George maybe? I don’t even remember at this point. We talked to them for a bit and then I realized my left arm and hand were completely numb and tingly and my hands were swollen. Whoever we were with (Brian/George) said this wasn’t unusual after such a long ride and that it should go away in a few weeks! As I write this - a week and a half later - my arm has returned to normal but my hand still feels like it’s asleep.
I went to get the bag I had dropped off before the ride and changed into fresh clothes. While I was doing this Marcy went and bought me a souvenir cycling jersey! We met back up and considering walking around a bit more and looking for more friends. However, suddenly I was very aware that I had only had 90 minutes of sleep over the last 4 and a half days.
We headed back to the train and even outside of the finish area - the entire town of Rambouillet was celebrating. Everyone we passed said “Bravo!” I’d been ignoring my road rash since Monday so when we walked by a pharmacy Marcy went in to buy some antiseptic and bandages. Outside there were already a few bicycles leaned against the glass from cyclists needing various medicines to deal with whatever 1200km had done to them. Two French men came by on the other side of the street, stopped, and pointed at the spectacle. I don’t know what they said, but the joke was pretty obvious and we were able to share a laugh despite the language barrier.
We stopped at a restaurant (that was swarming with cyclists and sold out of steak!) and then finally made it to the train. I was asleep as soon as it pulled out of the station. Marcy held my bike and says several people came up and congratulated her on her ride.
We went for dinner back in Versailles at a kebab shop. On the way back we stopped by a massage therapist that we had seen the week before and had been looking forward to. However, the person that answered the door was wearing a lot of makeup, but not a lot of clothes, and said they weren’t open. It wasn’t quite the type of massage parlor we were looking for.
The next day we attempted to do a bit of sight seeing and have a picnic at the Versailles gardens. We made it there, walking, but just barely. It was difficult for me to keep my head held up and I just felt… “not right” inside. Like my organs were in the wrong places and were being squish around as I walked. Amazingly my legs and butt never had any problems. It was every other part of my body that hurt! We had to call an Uber to make it back to the AirBnB.
Marcy took pity on me and the next day we just rented a car instead of walking anywhere. I showed her some of the tiny towns that we had ridden through. And, of course, she drove since I couldn’t really turn my head left or right!
They say that cycling is a team sport with individual finishers. This is exactly what this journey has been. So many people worked together to get me across that finish line. For 89 hours it was the most physically challenging thing I have ever done. But the entire time I was getting encouraging messages on Facebook and WhatsApp.
And for years before that I had support during some grueling training rides in wind, and rain, and awful heat. The training and qualifying rides themselves can go on for 40 hours and during that time Marcy and the boys are back home taking up the slack and doing my share of the household chores.
During one of my very first rides with Audax Atlanta someone told me that the vast majority of people interested in Paris Brest Paris never make it to the start line because they don’t have the support of their family. It’s one thing to have a huge goal. It’s quite another to have a huge goal and the support of all your loved ones behind it.
When we got home my mother-in-law had dinner and cake waiting for us!
The perfect end to our journey.